Following the success of last year’s RUC Americas virtual conference, CiTTi Magazine brought the in-person Road User Charging Conference to the USA for the very first time on the 13 and 14 June 2022 at the Hyatt Regency’s James L Knight Center in downtown Miami, Florida. The two-day event saw some 20 transportation professionals from the across the USA and beyond share their insights at what is a time of seismic change in the way road maintenance and construction is funded across the country.
The conference was opened by Ben Owen and Adam Hager of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC). The pair shared how the organisation, via its Commuter Choice programme, is reinvesting toll revenues from two principal expressway corridors in the Northern Virginia portion of the Washington, DC metropolitan area into transit improvements and other multimodal transport enhancements to grow commuters’ travel options and support corridor mobility goals.
Delegates learned how Commuter Choice operates, the public-private and state-regional-local partnerships involved, the programme’s rigorous performance management framework and how NVTC ensures the programme delivers maximum value to toll payers. Owen and Hager also explained how to invest toll revenues defensibly into non-roadway projects, addressed why partnerships are critical to the success of a competitive transportation grant programme funded via toll revenues and highlighted the need for rigorous performance analysis and programme transparency.
Mark Reichert, executive director at the Florida Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council, explained how transportation infrastructure is funded in Florida and provided insight on the fiscal challenges the US state faces regarding its reliance on fuel tax as a primary source of future transportation funding. His session also explored how to replace the fuel tax with a more sustainable option.
Insight into the USA’s national RUC programme was delivered by Barbara Rohde, executive director of the Mileage Based User Fee Alliance (MBUFA) and Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation. Attendees heard Rhodes expound on the implications of a law signed last November by US President Joe Biden that incudes US$125m to test RUC at all levels in the USA in the next five years. Moore then discussed the status, and emerging scope of, the national RUC trial approved by Congress, before outlining the unique challenges and opportunities it could face and provide, as well how it might interact with ongoing state-level trials.
The concept of congestion pricing was explored via two presentations and one panel discussion featuring representatives from transit agencies from two of the USA’s most densely populated and congested cities. First, Dr Allison L. C. de Cerreño, deputy chief operating officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who discussed New York City’s Central Business District Tolling Program – the first implementation of this type of road pricing for congestion reduction in the USA. She provided background on the project and technology, a status update on the recently published Environmental Assessment and public engagement process and discussed ways in which the project had already broken new ground, including in ways that could have application across the country and beyond the programme itself. Dr de Cerreño was followed by Ryan Wiggins, senior manager at LA Metro, who explained how the agency, through its Traffic Reduction Study, is exploring if, where and how, in LA County, a pilot programme with affordable pricing to manage demand and investments in high-quality transportation options could reduce traffic and make it easier to get around. Wiggins provided a comprehensive study background, progress update and discussed how LA Metro was adjusting the study process and timeline to monitor and adapt to changing economic and traffic conditions brought on by Covid-19. The presentation also explored pricing as one pillar of a broader strategy to address traffic, the importance of integrating equity into the study process and why the potential benefits and burdens are significant. Both Dr de Cerreño and Wiggins then came together for an enthralling panel discussion that highlighted some of the different challenges their cities faced when trying to implement congestion pricing.
Road User Charging Conference USA also offered unique perspectives from leading European organisations looking to lend their expertise to their US peers. Frederic Bruneteau, managing director at Ptolemus Consulting Group, provided an intriguing overview of current motorway charging methods and information on toll collection for European countries, as well as insight into the RUC projects being piloted and implemented in major cities and various urban centres across Europe.
Gerd Nees, director of international business development at Belgian smart mobility solution provider Be-Mobile, explained why Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) are becoming the standard for electronic RUC. This included details on the company’s unified RUC Control Center, which provides centralised map-matching, crystal-clear RUC revenue estimates and other great tools, which are all represented in an easy-to-understand user interface.
Meanwhile, Peter Polakovic, CTO of SkyToll, and Miroslav Benes, external relationships manager at CzechToll, discussed how the generational replacement of an electronic toll system based on dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) technology with a modern GNSS solution brought huge savings to the Czech Republic.
Delegates learned how operating costs fell by two-thirds, even though the toll road network expanded by 60% to cover highways and lower-class roads. Polakovic and Benes also outlined the possibilities and bottlenecks identified from pilot projects of regional interoperability among Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia, compared to the introduction of pan-European interoperability using service providers.
Overall, the inaugural Road User Charging Conference USA reinforced that the motivation to explore and implement RUC continues to be based on the growth in population and vehicle miles travelled as fuel tax revenues continue their permanent decline. This is owing to two persistent trends.
First, consumers are purchasing and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, including electric vehicles. This means they are paying less in fuel tax per mile driven than ever before or, as in some cases, they are paying no fuel tax at all. Second, although fuel prices continue to increase, US Federal fuel tax revenues and most state fuel tax revenues have not come close to keeping pace. Indeed, the majority of fuel taxes consist of a fixed number of cents per gallon and are not tied to inflation.
It’s clear that while the technology is available to make RUC work in the USA, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Every US state has different needs – akin to those of a country – and, so, what’s needed now is continued education, public outreach and ways that make it as easy for the user as possible to buy into the concept. Those are among the key factors in successfully implementing any road user charging scheme as a truly viable alternative transportation revenue source in the USA.